Good timing. Just Friday we were discussing limits on biological knowledge, particularly in regard to bioterrorism and the potential for information to fall into the wrong hands (or be used for the “wrong” purposes). Today, msnbc.com has an article discussing this exact issue:
Eckard Wimmer knows of a shortcut terrorists could someday use to get their hands on the lethal viruses that cause Ebola and smallpox. He knows it exceptionally well, because he discovered it himself.
In 2002, the German-born molecular geneticist startled the scientific world by creating the first live, fully artificial virus in the lab. It was a variation of the bug that causes polio, yet different from any virus known to nature. And Wimmer built it from scratch.
The virus was made wholly from nonliving parts, using equipment and chemicals on hand in Wimmer’s small laboratory at the State University of New York here on Long Island. The most crucial part, the genetic code, was picked up for free on the Internet. Hundreds of tiny bits of viral DNA were purchased online, with final assembly in the lab.
Wimmer intended to sound a warning, to show that science had crossed a threshold into an era in which genetically altered and made-from-scratch germ weapons were feasible. But in the four years since, other scientists have made advances faster than Wimmer imagined possible. Government officials, and scientists such as Wimmer, are only beginning to grasp the implications.
“The future,” he said, “has already come.”
The article goes on to discuss various ways to either engineer new pathogens, or to modify existing ones to make them more deadly–and why the focus on just a handful of potential bioterrorism agents is misguided.